We found ourselves in Pennsylvania, our boxes scattered across empty rooms, my father and mother sweating. For some reason, my father liked to move us in the summer time.
Our new neighbor sat on his porch. He was short and plump like a teapot, here is my handle, here is my rump, which he covered in denim jeans, held by checkered suspenders and a big brass belt. He called himself Jasper the Friendly Jost, since that was his name, Jasper Jost, JJ Jr, and if it weren’t for his little Yorkshire Terrier with its bedazzled pink collar, I might have been scared of the man. He watched me through a cloudy eye and hiked his pants up higher, and when my parents went back to unpacking, he asked if I knew what cancer looked like.
Jasper loosened his suspenders and lifted his shirt.
On his big white belly, he had what looked like a giant hand pressed up against his skin.
“Used to be an itty-bitty hand,” he said. “But it clawed and grew and now look at it, you’d think it could palm a basketball.”
I bent over to give it a real close look.
“You sure that’s cancer?”
“Sure is,” he said, lowering his shirt. “It tickles me at night. Its index finger,” he raised his own, “tries opening the knot in my stomach, I swear to God I saw its nail poking through and part of me thought just let it out. Come on out cancer, show yourself, let me see your ugly face.” He picked his little dog up off the porch and placed it in his lap. He stroked its head. “Anyway. Doctors gave me six months to live a decade ago, but what none of them knows is this cancer don’t wanna kill me from inside, no, it’s gonna find its way out and kill me then, what’s the point of dying in there with me?”
Then Jasper leaned in toward me, his big belly practically swallowing his dog.
“But when it finds its way out, I’ll be ready, too. I got a plan,” he whispered. “For how to face it.”
He held a finger to his lips. “Shh,” he said. “It’s listening. But it knows it’s getting a fight. So, it keeps growing and I keep letting it, giving each other a fair chance, you know. Man to man, pick on someone its own size.”
My mother stepped out of our new house across the street. From Jasper’s porch, you could see it all. It was painted yellow with a bright green door and red shutters around each window. A pink rose bush hid most of the porch, which was navy blue on one side, orange on the other, and whoever owned it before us, my mother said, must have had quite the imagination.
Jasper shook his head. “No one owned it before you.”
“No one?” my mother asked.
“No. Someone came by and built it and then went on his way.”
Other than Jasper’s house and ours, the street split farmland as far as you could see.
“Before that man came by, I could sit here and see those mountains way off and drink my beer with the stars above my head, but you know what that man did? He set every light to turn on at dusk so those stars no longer shined.”
My mother shook her head. “And he wasn’t even living there?”
“Nuh-uh. He came through one day with a truckload of wood and nails and took his hammer and saw and put a sign out front saying, Under Construction, and the only time he said a word to me was on the very last day, when he nailed that final shingle above the attic window. He nodded his cap, and I swear to God, he looked at me and said, Enjoy.”
“And then he left?”
Jasper put a hand over his heart and raised the other. His dog sniffed his scraggly chin.
“You think you got the world in your hands and someone’ll come and hide it from you.” He stared across the road at our bright green door and all that nothing in between. “For a while I thought the man would come back. I kind of wanted him to, you know? He didn’t make sense to me, but maybe if we were neighbors, I’d understand him more. See eye-to-eye. But I got the feeling that was the point—he built that house to confuse me. Why me, I don’t know, but for ten years I’ve been staring at it, not knowing why it’s there, and now you folks are in it.”
My mother lit a cigarette. She didn’t smoke except for the days we moved.
“Doesn’t make sense,” she said. “Building something not to fill it.”
Jasper shrugged. He put the dog down at his feet and stroked its head. “As a warning, you ever see Moxie peeing on your door, I’m sorry. Trained her to do her business over there.” He breathed so I could hear the air enter his lungs. He leaned way back in his chair. He kept his eyes on our door. “When I can’t sleep, I ask why me? You know? I think everybody asks that. Why build that house right in front of me? But maybe I’m missing the big picture.”
“What’s that?” my mother asked.
“Maybe it wasn’t about me. Maybe that man didn’t even see me here. All that time he was working, he didn’t look my way. Then he hammers the final nail, and there I am, materializing before his eyes.” Jasper’s one good eye was green just like the door. “He builds that house and then sees me. And what I can’t figure out is if all that time, he thought he was building me, too.”
A week after we moved into the yellow house across the street, Jasper came over for dinner. My mother insisted. We sat around the dinner table, a family heirloom we’d moved from town to town, a cherry slab my grandfather cut and stained the year he met my grandma. I ate on the side where the wood sloped like a crashing wave and placed my plate on a little black knot, raised in the middle, which made me think the wood could see me as well as I saw it.
When we led him up the porch, Jasper tapped his cane around the entrance, feeling the floorboards like a blind man. He didn’t trust it, he said, with just one eye alone.
My father poured him wine. Across the street, Moxie yapped. If we paused a moment in conversation, there she was, reminding us she still had more to say.
Jasper cleared his throat. “It’s a pattern,” he said. He tapped his cane in rhythm with her yapping. “Sooner you know the pattern, the better off you’ll be.”
He counted it with us, each high-pitched bark, followed by a pause, just long enough to know she was starting again from the top.
Jasper surveyed the walls of our dining room and finished his wine. “You know something? Everything I’ve ever seen, I’ve walked to. The mountains in the distance, I’ve walked to them. The cluster of spruce trees two miles west, I’ve packed my lunch and eaten in their shade. Anything I can see from my window, I’ve stood on, or at least beneath. Orion’s Belt—I’ve walked to a place where I could gaze straight up at it. Every speck on the horizon, I’ve also seen up close. But not here.” From where I sat, Jasper’s cloudy eye moved from each picture my mother hung. “Houses are funny, you know, ’cause they kind of got a face. The two top windows are eyes. The shingles, its hair, the porch, its chin and mouth. And ever since this place rose from the ground, that face has been watching me. Everything I do, it watches. And it’s hard ’cause a house is just a head—you don’t get to see its neck or shoulders. You can’t read it other than what’s in its eyes, there’s no body language. You don’t see if its arms tighten. You’re looking at it, but you don’t really see anything. And now I’m here.” He looked around.
My mom waited for him to finish.
“So,” she said in that quiet moment between Moxie’s barking. “What do you make of it?”
It was the summer, like I said. A hot summer, too. But not just hot, sticky. The kind where sweat pools in your armpits. The kind that feels all right until a drop rolls down your side, and you feel your mother’s fingers tracing bones beneath your skin.
When that sweat journeys on down, you wonder how much of this is memory and what parts you’re making up, but still, you feel it: her nails working down the same small path the drop carves out on your skin.
“Roman,” you remember her asking. “You ever get scared you’ll stay like this forever?”
You know that’s what she said but aren’t sure if these things are connected, that question about who you are and her finger working its way along your side.
“Like this. Hungry, scared.”
You remember following her finger from rung to rung, down the scaffolding of your side, how her nails felt more like teeth.
“Well?” she asked.
You remember a steady ticking outside, rain dripping from the gutters. One-two-three. Drip. One-two-three. You remember counting them.
You breathed in rhythm with the drips.
“Well?” she asked again.
It was raining. You know that. But the sun was shining, too. You remember following your ribs down to her finger prodding the bones you thought she could remove with a single pull.
What’s the question? you wanted to ask, but that little drop of sweat completes its path, and you’re here again, in this big yellow house, standing in the foyer behind the bright green door.
There was a sawing across the street. Across meaning across from Jasper’s porch. I spent most of my days there. There wasn’t anything else to do, or places to be. The nearest store was six miles east. A convenience store—convenient for I don’t know whom. It sold everything you didn’t need: chips, but only the spicy kind, and sodas, but only the knock-off kind, and papers, I swear to God, as Jasper liked to say, they were three days old. Plus, the store was down a long dirt path covered in apple trees, and if you didn’t know where you were headed, you’d have thought you made a wrong turn despite the fact there were no turns at all.
For weeks, the sawing went on. Sawing and hammering, and one day, when Jasper and I were sitting on his porch, Moxie got up off his lap and crossed the street to our house. Only this time, when she crouched by our door to pee, my father was hammering so loud, she ran. Where she was going, Jasper wished he knew. She hadn’t ever left this place, he said. Her whole world was no wider than a classroom—from the foot of his bed to our front door.
When Jasper and I drove to the convenience store, we asked the man behind the counter if he’d seen a little Yorkshire Terrier come this way.
“A what?” he asked.
“A dog,” said Jasper.
“Oh,” said the man, glancing out the window. “What’d you say it was called?”
There was no barking the next time Jasper came over for dinner. Just that sawing behind us, my father in the backyard sweating.
My mother poured Jasper wine.
“You think she’ll ever come back?” she asked.
Jasper shrugged, sipped his wine.
“What’s she know about where she is?” He pushed the wine aside, then thought better of it and allowed himself to drink more. “I used to think her barking was white noise, you know? Something you could just tune out. But I can’t hear anything anymore. Can’t hear myself think. Can’t hear the birds outside, can’t even hear my own footsteps when I walk. I look at my feet, and it’s like they’re not even meeting the ground. I tap my cane on the floor, and I don’t hear it. It’s just that sawing,” he said. He opened his mouth to say more, but thought better of it and scratched around his bellybutton like something inside him was starting to tickle.
For one week straight, it rained. Not every minute but enough to think it wouldn’t stop. Some days you woke to the sound of rain and some days you could see it coming. Some nights the clouds sunk so low, you could feel them hold you like heavy wool, and a part of you thought you were drowning.
Jasper said the rain had to do with the mountains. Something about the clouds getting stuck on their peaks.
When the rain stopped, so did the sawing. Then my father started digging on the left side of our house. Jasper and I watched him from the porch.
“You know what he’s digging?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
He winced when he touched his stomach.
“The cancer?” I asked.
He lifted his shirt. His belly was hard and round. He scratched it. “Look.” The hand beneath his skin had grown. Its fingers were bigger than his own.
“You think it’ll come out soon?” I asked.
Jasper watched my father dig. “I don’t know,” he said.
And his eyes moved up and down, up and down, in rhythm with my father’s shovel.
I’ve never heard my father speak. When I dream of his voice, it sounds like the work he does. Out comes hammering or sawing or digging. In my dreams, I understand what those sounds mean. Sometimes when I watch him work, I wonder if he’s trying to tell me something. Maybe it’s in the patterns. How fast his shovel hits the dirt. Or how many boards he lays on a sawhorse.
I’ve asked my mother how she could fall in love with someone who cannot speak. But what I really mean to say is, “How do you know he loves you back?”
He doesn’t speak to us with his hands. His face doesn’t change when he’s mad. I do not know if he feels anger or sadness or pain. But there was one time I saw him cry.
We were living on the coast of Maine. Our home overlooked a crowded port of fishing boats. My father stood by our living room window. He must have thought he was alone. In the port, two fishermen had just come back from a long day’s work. A girl, no more than seven years old, stood on the dock waiting for them. The men helped her onto the boat, and the girl in turn helped them clean it. And they all just stood there, the boat rocking back and forth.
And then my father cried.
“Dad,” I said. But he pretended he was still alone. Even when he turned to look at me, he carried on like I hadn’t seen a thing.
Two weeks after Moxie left, a rusted Honda Civic pulled up between our homes. The man who worked the convenience store rolled his window down.
“Hey,” he said. He signaled Jasper to come closer. “I found this on my way to work.” He handed him the pink bedazzled collar. “This your dog’s?”
Jasper cradled it in his hands. “Where’d you find this?” he asked.
“About fifty feet from the store.”
“And she wasn’t there?”
“No signs of—” Jasper almost couldn’t say it. “Bones or fur?”
“No bones, no fur. Just this.”
When they finished talking, Jasper sat back down beside me. He stared across at the bright green door. To the left of my house, the hole my father dug was so deep, all you could see was the top of his head bobbing up and down. Up and down as the shovel rose. One-two-shovel, one-two-shovel. My mother stepped out of our home.
“Morning,” she said.
Jasper looked past her at the hole.
“What’s your husband building?” he asked.
My mother stopped in the middle of the street.
“I don’t know.”
“That’s what Roman said.”
“Well, it’s true, we don’t.” My mother noticed the collar in his lap.
“But how can you not know?”
“I mean he’s still figuring it out. Sometimes he never figures it out.”
My mother sighed. “If you’re asking me to guess, I’d say he’s probably gonna build a market. I mean, where do you even get your food around here? Either that or a little diner.”
Jasper shook his head. “I don’t get it.”
“That’s ’cause we’re talking about the future, honey. And the future’s all about getting people what they want.” She smiled. “Listen—when he’s finished, you’re gonna thank us. When you can just walk across the street and eat something fresh.”
Jasper tightened the collar around his fingers.
“Was he the one who built that house?”
“Him? God no. But I thank whoever did. That man knew someone would want to stop here someday. Settle down, figure the place out. We’re still talking about the future. Only that future’s now.”
“I don’t want a market,” said Jasper. “I don’t want more buildings, I don’t want—”
“Shh. Not everything’s about you, Jasper. You said it yourself. Why me? Maybe this is for someone else.”
“Look.” My mother turned to face the mountains. “You can still see them to the right. And the stars above, listen—we’ll make sure the lights go out at dark. How’s that? It’ll close each night at six, and anyone who works here, they’ll know to turn the lights off.”
Jasper shook his head. “I used to be alone.”
“Is that what you want, to be alone?”
His shoulders tightened, back arched forward.
“I mean I had Moxie.”
“Moxie,” my mother laughed. “Listen to yourself. We’re the ones with moxie! We’re the ones with drive! We’re the ones who are changing things!”
Up and down the shovel rose. On-two-shovel, one-two-shovel.
And calmly, in rhythm with my father’s bobbing head, Jasper crossed the street.
Maybe because my father liked pretending he was alone so much, he didn’t feel like turning when Jasper eased himself down into the hole, the pink bedazzled collar wrapped around his fist. Maybe he just didn’t hear him. Or maybe because my father had lulled himself into the rhythm of his digging, the world seemed all right to him, at peace. When my father screamed, I thought, So that’s what his voice sounds like. It wasn’t the way I pictured. Wasn’t as strong as the sound of digging or as steady as his sawing. It was too human for that. I didn’t know what that meant, for my father to sound human, scared. But that’s what it was. The scared cry of someone who hadn’t been paying attention, hadn’t noticed the barking gone missing or the stars dimming above his head. He screamed, then stopped, and my mother ran down into the hole.
Jasper tapped his cane back across the street. He sank into the chair beside me.
“Shit.” He breathed. “Where’d you say you folks were from?”
I shook my head. “Where do I start?”
“Parts of Florida. California. Both of the Portlands and everywhere in between.”
“I’ve only ever been here.”
He looked around, at all the places he’d ever walked to.
“Man.” He took the collar off his fist and laid it on his porch. I followed his eyes to that bright green door. “It’s really just another house, isn’t it?”
“Not that ugly, not that great.”
“Just a little bright.”
“Yeah, that’s it. A little too bright.”
“How’s the hand?” I asked.
He rubbed his knuckles.
“No, I mean—” I nodded to his belly.
He lifted his shirt. The fingers had grown so large they covered his ribs. He pulled the shirt back down. “You think I stand a chance?”
He motioned for me to come closer. “I don’t want it to hear this,” he whispered. “But I don’t really have a plan.” He smiled and looked back across the road, first to the left of my house, then to the right. For a moment, that’s all he did. First to the left, then to the right.
Then he made up his mind and stood.